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When Theatres Close

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1592 — 1594 London theatres were closed due to the bubonic plague.

I’m writing this article on March 17, 2020 St Patrick’s Day, and I am wearing green—but I’ll not be going to a pub today to celebrate.

Bars, restaurants and theatres are all closed as a result of Covid-19, and, instead, I’m taking this opportunity to reflect on how and why theatres close.

Having spent many summers in the Rogue Valley, I’ve grown accustomed to standing on the porch in late afternoon, checking the skies and wondering whether the open air performance at Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Allen Elizabethan Theatre would go ahead. Rain is the most persistent threat to outdoor theatre. I have acted in many such shows in England in the distant past, and managed to escape with no cancelled performances—however, I remember well a production of Hamlet in Le Jardin Shakespeare in Paris, in which the majority of performances were rained off. OSF suffers from rain-affected shows most years, and even occasionally suffers flooding, most recently in 2015.

The closure of theatres is by no means a recent phenomenon: it has a long history.

Sadly, we’ve become accustomed to smoke too, notably in 2018, when the theatre at Ashland High School was pressed into service. There have even been problems with indoor theatres at OSF: a structural problem in the roof closed the Angus Bowmer Theatre in 2011, and shows were moved into a tent in Lithia Park.

All these cancellations are costly, but the 2020 cancellations may well set new records. The loss of income to OSF is high, but we should not forget that, since all theatres in the region are closed, the pain is felt by smaller companies too. These smaller companies may face real struggles to keep afloat after this setback. In the current situation. I was told by the director of one such company that if you had a ticket for a show which had been postponed or cancelled, it would be greatly appreciated if you decided to give back the price of that ticket as a donation: these companies rely very heavily on ticket sales, and, in many cases, do not have the safety net of sponsors and donors

The closure of theatres is by no means a recent phenomenon: it has a long history. The theatres of Shakespeare’s time were a fertile breeding ground for communicable diseases. In 1604 it was decreed that public playing on the London stage should cease once the number of those who died every week of plague rose “above the number of 30”. Two years later, the plague ravaged the capital, and all theatres were shut down. The enforced leisure caused by their closure allowed Shakespeare the time to write Macbeth and King Lear. However, his landlady in Silver Street, Marie Mountjoy, seems to have been far less fortunate: she died, apparently a victim of the disease.

In the past, theatre has also been affected theatre by politics. In 1919, a month-long dispute between Broadway producers and the actor’s union, Equity, closed some 40 productions across the city of New York, and brought revenue losses of more than $3 million: the resolution of that strike led to the full recognition of Equity as the professional actors’ union.

Perhaps the most significant intervention made by politics into the world of the theatre took place in the middle of the seventeenth century in England when, after the Puritans came to govern the country, theatres (largely in London) were closed for some eighteen years. This was less to do with the content of the plays, than with fears of large groups of people coming together and potentially sharing anti-government, Royalist views. This closure proved to be a watershed in the history of English theatre. Prior to 1642, London theatre had flourished in both outdoor and indoor venues. After eighteen years of lack of use, the outdoor theatres had fallen into disrepair, and so, after 1660, theatre moved entirely indoors. Tickets were much more expensive and the audience came increasingly to be drawn from the wealthier class. That legacy has continued: no new outdoor theatre was built in London for more than three hundred years until the opening of the reconstructed Globe in 1997. As you perhaps know, the guiding figure behind that reconstruction was an American, the actor and director Sam Wanamaker.